Pressure on the supply of critical materials will continue to mount as the electrification of road transport expands to meet zero emissions ambitions. According to the IEA, demand for electric vehicle (EV) batteries will grow from around 340 GWh today to over 3,500 GWh by 2030.
“Additional investments are needed in the short term, especially in the mining sector, where delivery times are much longer than for other parts of the supply chain. In some cases, it takes more than a decade from initial feasibility studies to production, and then several more years to reach design production capacity,” the report states.
Projected mineral supply through the late 2020s is in line with demand for electric vehicle batteries in the IEA’s Global Energy Model “Stated Policy Scenario”. But the supply of some minerals, such as lithium, is expected to increase by up to a third by 2030 to meet promises and announcements for electric vehicle batteries in the “Pledged Pledge Scenario (APS) of the same energy model.” “.
“For example, demand for lithium – the product with the largest projected gap between demand and supply – is expected to increase six-fold to 500 kilotonnes by 2030 in the APS, requiring the equivalent of 50 new medium-sized mines,” according to the report.
By 2030, nickel will face the largest increase in absolute demand, as high nickel chemicals are currently the dominant cathode for electric vehicles and are expected to remain so.
For cobalt, the opposite is true, as battery manufacturers continue to seek low-cobalt chemicals (and even potentially cobalt-free chemicals by 2030) to reduce costs and due environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns.
Despite the trend, the report warns that rising global demand for electric vehicle batteries will continue to drive up total cobalt demand this decade.
The IEA estimates that to meet projected demand in 2030 under the Stated Policies Scenario, an additional 41 nickel mines and 11 cobalt mines are needed – a significant increase from the current pipeline of projects.
“For the announced commitments scenario, 60 new nickel mines and 17 new cobalt mines are needed in 2030 (assuming an average annual mine production capacity of 38,000 tonnes of nickel and 7,000 tonnes of cobalt).”
Once an extractable resource is identified through exploration, the IEA says it can take anywhere from four to more than 20 years for a mine to begin commercial production.
In addition to this critical need for new mines, mine development timelines have telescoped up to 16 years to undertake the necessary feasibility studies, as well as engineering and construction work. In addition to the time required to begin commercial production, mines often take about ten years to reach design production capacity.
The IEA says upstream mining can lead to significant bottlenecks unless adequate investment is provided well in advance. “It appears that demand for EV battery metals in the stated policies scenario will likely be met for all metals through 2025 if the announced new supply comes online as expected.”
It also wouldn’t help if interim processing didn’t keep pace with rapidly increasing supplies. “Furthermore, in order to translate this into EV deployment, dozens of cathode and anode factories, gigafactories and EV production plants are needed,” according to the report.
The IEA suggests that innovative new mining and processing technologies such as direct lithium mining (DLE), high pressure acid leaching (HPAL) and re-mining of mining waste could go a long way in filling the emerging gaps. in terms of supply.
“Direct lithium mining can increase production from existing mines. It bypasses the time-consuming need to evaporate unconcentrated brine water and the chemical removal of impurities,” explains the EIA.
“In addition to providing cost and time advantages, DLE has sustainability benefits and expands the economically extractable lithium supply pool.”
However, the technology is not yet economically proven and has yet to be applied commercially in the field.
HPAL offers a solution to increase nickel production. The process uses acid separation at high temperature and pressure to produce Class 1 nickel for battery applications using laterite resources.
However, technology is not a panacea. “Capital costs for HPAL projects are typically double that of conventional smelters for oxide ore and take around four to five years to reach capacity,” according to the IEA.
“The environmental impact of HPAL is also a concern, as it often uses coal or oil-fired boilers for heat, emitting up to three times more greenhouse gas emissions than production from sulphide deposits.
The IEA also highlighted the mixed hydroxide precipitation (MHP) process, an intermediate product produced from laterite that can be refined into the nickel and cobalt sulphates needed for low-cost batteries.
MHP can also be transformed into nickel and cobalt products from selective acid leaching, a process with a low environmental footprint.